Friday, September 26, 2008

Renovating Briggs; In Which I Strip Anodizing, Fabricate Downtube Stops, and Harmoniously Combine Old and New

No, Niles still isn't painted. These things take time, after all. But two items of good news: first, Niles is being painted this very day, and may in fact be sitting happily "curing" at Velocolour as I write; and second, being fundamentally incapable of relaxing, I have been busily at work finishing off another project: renovating Briggs.

Briggs is a bike I bought about this time last year, on eBay. He was listed by a Toronto seller as a "Brigantia," a marque of which I'd never heard, but caught my eye because of his full 1975 Campagnolo Nuovo Record group, his large 63cm size, his lovely yellow colour, and the description which described him as hand-built from Reynolds 531 tubing, Prugnat long-point lugs, and and 45% silver braze. In short, it sounds like either a very knowledgable person was selling this bike, or else the person who had built it was selling it. As it turned out, it was the latter.

After some correspondence, I took the subway northwards to pick him up, and met his creator, a man named Eric Gray. He is in his seventies, and built Briggs in the 70s, when he was teaching a course in framebuilding. Before that he had been a racer in England; and after, he continued to teach in a college, and apparently became more interested in steam engines than bicycles. (I told him I was interested in learning to build frames, and he send me a copy of his framebuilding mannual. I'll shortly read this over, knowing what I now know.)

Briggs is apparently one of about ten frames that Eric Gray built himself. There some evidence of relative inexperience: there are some gaps in the brazing in the lugs, for example — though this might be evidence more of a painter not very clever at fixing errors. But, as soon as I began to ride Briggs, I discovered how incredibly nicely he rides. He is phenomenally light, for one thing — I don't know what gauge of tubing Gray used, but it certainly feels light. He also fits me absolutely perfectly — before him, my largest bike was a 60, and I could immediately see what I was missing. His handling is likewise superb, and I noticed right away how balanced I felt on him. No-hands riding was remarkably steady.

With a bike that rode this nicely, certain bits of the Nuovo Record group began to feel like novelties. The shifting was not good, whether the shifters themselves or the derailleur was to blame. The five-speed Dura Ace freewheel, a 13-19, was horribly limited. (When I rode Briggs on a populaire with the Ontario Randonneurs, and ended up climbing up the escarpment twice in my 42-19, I badly injured my IT band and had to take half a month off riding.) The brakes worked very well, however, the bottom bracket was mighty smooth, and the crankset frighteningly beautiful. I told myself: maybe this bike needs some "upgrading."

My first road bike had an 8-speed Shimano 600 STI group on it when I bought it, but since then I have "downgraded" that bike (a Marinoni) to Shimano Sante 7-speed, and now have not a single "modern" bike. On my recent ride with the Barrys and company, seeing many classic-looking bikes with Ergopower, I though it might be time to try it out, and to put it on Briggs — a bike I wanted to ride more. A new freewheel and some Simplex shifters might have done the trick, of course — but I have enough bikes like that, and it was time for some variety. So I decided to do it.

I found someone on Toronto Craigslist who was selling Centaur shifters, a Dura Ace/Open Pro wheelset, and a Jtek shiftmate for extremely good prices. This sounded just about perfect: I like Shimano hubs better than Campagnolo, and like the variety of reasonably-priced cassettes on offer. (Also: Briggs came to me with a Dura Ace freehweel, a Nitto stem, and a Sugino seatpost — some mixing and matching is in his blood.) I also love the group name "Centaur" as an apt description of what one becomes on a bike — and had a Centaur rear derailleur (though it is grey). Well, I bought all of these things — but when I got them, the shifters didn't work. I feared this was an ill omen of poor Ergopower reliability. Indeed, it may have been. But I decided to take it as an opportunity to get nicer-looking levers. These had carbon blades, and I didn't like them. I got my money back from the seller (Don, a very fine man indeed), and bought some alloy-bladed Chorus shifters on eBay, and they came with a matching silver derailleur.

The idea was to keep as many of the original components as possible: the cranks, the brakes, the front derailleur, the headset, the seatpost — these would stay. The only new parts would be the wheels, cassette (Shimano 105 12-27), chain (Ultegra), rear derailleur, and integrated shifters.

Step one was re-spacing the frame from about 122 to 130. I did this following Sheldon Brown's instructions, and it went very smoothly.

Next was getting the anodizing off of the crankset. Yes, as you have read before, I don't like the look of anodizing, particularly once it's begun to wear off. That was Briggs's sorry lot, and so away I stripped. I used the Easy Off method this time, since there are so many uneven surfaces on the NR cranks. I did it outside, and used gloves to avoid lye burns. I sprayed on the Easy Off (make sure to get the "Heavy Duty" variety) and waited a minute or two as I watched the cranks turn black, then dunked them in water to check progress, then sprayed again. I think they took about 20 minutes each of spraying before they'd turned black. Then I polished with Simichrome in several steps: one go-over to get off the black/green scum, then another to get them half-shiny, then a final-mega-polish. It took some time, but they came out looking beautiful. As seen here:

Next I fabricated what I consider the nicest part of the whole bike: the downtube cable stops. I had read on the Classic Rendezvous list of Greg Reiche's (of Cyclart) construction of these stops from NR levers. There were no instructions, but I knew I must make similar stops! They symbolized, if you'll allow me a poetic departure, the spirit of the project: the old not only coexisting with the new, but working together with it! The very same pieces of metal that had previously shifted the gears (so very poorly!) now abetting a superior shifting system!

They were quite easy to make: just chop off the lever, file the barrel round, and flip the "stop" portions from left to right. Cyclart used a regular bolt; I used the original "D bolt," because it says Campagnolo on it. The main obstacle was guilt: I wasn't thrilled about destroying perfectly functioning levers. I did ask people on the CR list if they wanted to trade bent/broken levers for my functioning ones, but no one bit. Well, I told myself, they never shifted very well anyway: they were always either too tight and almost immovable, or else too loose and slipping. I chopped them off. I'll make keychains from them.

Finally came the business of putting it all together. The main problem was the interference of the chain- and seatstays with the small gear on the cassette. Some filing solved this. I was worried that the Shiftmate would look ugly, but this wasn't a problem: I think it looks nice, and it also greatly aids the otherwise very awkward cable loop to the above-chainstay stop. Getting the NR front derailleur to shift harmoniously with the narrow chain is a bit of a problem. I got some "throwing" in both directions intially. But with some fiddling, it seems to be working just fine now.

My only real complaint is the jungle of cables that partially obscure Briggs's true highlight: his "England Stag" headbadge. I realize I could have cut the cables short or left them longer, but I think this seems like the most efficient length, and — well, the Stag is shy, and enjoys the newfound privacy; he insisted I keep them as they are.

The best news of all: in addition to looking really nice, Briggs's wonderful frame is now matched by equally wonderful componentry. Don't get me wrong: I'm still a devotee of the simplicity and elegance of downtube friction shifting. But integrated shifting and 20 speeds definitely have their place on rides like the one I did to Goodwood. On my "test ride" last night I found the shifting immediate and silent, and really liked being able to shift three gears at a time, which I couldn't do with my old 600 stuff and considered a big advantage of downtube shifting. I don't know how well this Chorus equipment will ultimately hold up, but it seems way sturdier than the Centaur.

Briggs now seems "perfect" — a satisfying as well as frightening prospect. I guess there's no tinkering left; I'll just have to ride him.


rinjin said...

That's really a pretty bike. Nice find. The angle of the last bit of cabling for the rear d'er looks awkward. I wonder if just a simple zip tie or some other fastener would help to flatten out that cable and improve the curve to the shiftmate.

AH said...

Thanks for the tip. I had been considering it, and thoughy I'd got the angle "good enough," but it does seem happier ziptied in place...

Centaur or Dura Ace said...

The Campagnolo Centaur is a very good group set and very reasonably well priced, but it is not in the same league as the Shimano Dura-Ace 7800. The Dura-Ace group set is the best that Shimano manufacture, where as the Campagnolo Centaur is now the 4th down the line from the new Super Record group. The Shimano Dura-Ace is the group set of the components of choice for many of the top professional cycle teams; where as the Campagnolo Centaur would not be seen on a pro or even a top amateur racing cyclist's bike.

Greg Reiche said...

Good job! Thanks for crediting me on the stops too.

I want to correct you on one thing, though: The screws I used on the stops aren't just "regular" old screws. They are the tension adjustment screws from early (pre-Record) Campagnolo Gran Sport shift levers. Turned out to be rather difficult to adjust the shifter tension with a screwdriver while riding, so they changed to the D-ring screw.